In my capacity as Liturgical artist I recently received a commission from St. Columban’s Catholic Parish to create a work of art depicting the Way of the Cross for their new church.
Part 1 – The Concept
The medium was to be enamel, glass fused onto metal. The story to cover the period of Christ’s progression from condemnation in Jerusalem to his death in the place of skulls, Golgotha. This event has been sculpted, written, drawn and painted in different styles by a variety of individuals and from different points of view for two thousand years. I therefore saw my goal to interpret this story visually, in a contemporary style, for a fast growing, vibrant and youthful parish as an immense responsibility.
Christ’s crucifixion was the subject to be presented, on fifteen 12″ x 12″ steel panels. My searches are long and thoughtful. Since I am usually unaware of the forms inspiration will take, I consider all study as legitimate. Magazines such as Art D’ Eglise, sketches, literature, postcards, internet searches, works on paper, museums, interviews, libraries and travels, all are given equal attention at the start.
Aware of the extent of my knowledge, I was ignorant of what remained unknown and therefore adopted a random approach, choosing books and videos from the Cincinnati Art Museum’s library, haphazardly picking four to six works per week. These included the prolific Middle ages, pre-history’s lucid drawings, Moses, the sadness of Francesco Messina, the luscious Renaissance, Kandinsky, Rome and Moscow, Rubens, Chartres, Hieronymus Bosch, the inventive Magritte, Islam, Moore and Cocteau. Any artist, any period, any discipline.
I also re-connected with old favorites such as Duccio’s altarpiece, Pollaiuollo’s sense of rhythm, the story of Noah, and Alberti’s Treatise on Painting. Cristo’s Running Fence spoke of the transitory nature of existence. I interviewed friends for their opinion of Jesus, “He connected with people,” one said, “and He ate out a lot.” I kept in mind unity and Andre Maurois’s habit of maintaining “perpetual freshness.”
In his book The Four Noble Truths, the Dalai Lama states that, “there is suffering, that suffering has a cause, that there is cessation of suffering and that there exists a path to such freedom ” This statement was a tremendous help. I began to think of The Way as that path and resurrection as a freedom.
“Did Christ suffer from lack of confidence?” asks the Lama. “Did He ever attain contentment?” I was humbled by the question. It was much easier for my temperament to wonder which color would represent confidence or signify contentment than to consider the theology.
I was besotted by research. Having looked at architectural drawings, I experienced myself in dreams flying under the roof of the yet unbuilt church floating over the pews. Eventually, I concentrated on two artists: Wassily Kandinsky for color energy, and Jean Cocteau for linear narrative. Color first, then line.
Religious symbolism remained a goal. In Florence, Ghiberti’s Doors of Paradise offered a particularly interesting bas-relief figure of God the Father. He is placed behind a cloud, peering down at Abraham’s preparations for the sacrifice of his son Isaac, the panel itself a precursor to the crucifixion. This little figure of the Father was to re-appear months later in an unrelated Dutch painting in the Louvre Museum. This time I understood and placed the figure of the protecting Father behind the dying Christ as an answer to the question “Why has thou forsaken me?” Ideas developed slowly. If inspiration was a meal, I felt I was surviving on bread crumbs.
The unexpected, needed creative spark came about while looking over an early Kandinsky, Landscape with a Tree. I saw there a small bent form in a vast landscape, an imperceptible, forlorn figure on an orange path. In that instant the direction and mood of my work became entirely manifest.
The painting spoke of aloneness; not a solitude, but abandonment. Christ the man, totally forsaken. From the moment of decision to accept this path, He gives himself over to the ultimate sacrifice. Others can play supporting roles or remain on the sidelines, but His the lonely pilgrimage. And again from Kandinsky, “With every step, the man who walks alone kicks up stardust.”
Now I could imagine a moment in time supported by color, all the panels joined and mounted as an uninterrupted, single, curving ribbon on a blank white wall. Golden ambers to be followed by turquoises and blues, then a crescendo into reds and purples at the emotional apex of the crucifixion, descending then through oranges to finally resolve in an explosion of golds for the resurrection.
And finally to the drawings. I began with gusto. In his book The Master and Margarita, the Russian writer Michael Bulgakov presents us with a Pontius Pilate suffering from migraines. This eccentric idea led me to consider a haughty Pilate. Thus in the first panel, perhaps my favorite, Pontius, irritated by lack of resolution with the High Priests as to what to do with this Jesus, walks away from them. This was new ground. I had not seen an interpretation such as this anywhere before. Energy from this first rendering gave me the urge to resolve the remaining work. Within a week, I would finish all the drawings.
The background would remain as simple as possible, location-less, with a certain universality. The story would play out on a simple orange path in a flat Dutch-like landscape of ground and sky. No palm trees or identifiable buildings. The action could have unfolded an;”where on earth as well as within one’s mind.
Because I believe that every human is a partial reflection of his universal God and every event has many aspects, I used two models for the Christ figure: a strong contemporary young man as well as an older one in order to help more viewers to identify with Jesus.
Ideas quickly fell into place: Jesus meets his Mother, Veronica wipes his face, the three falls. Everything I had ever learned connected in a cascade of unstoppable ideas. And it was finished. At last here was my banquet.
Part 2 – Panel Execution
With research behind, as I prepare to move from lyrical to material, wondering which will prove more enjoyable: the planning or the execution?
I will work at Thompson Enamel in Bellevue, Kentucky. To accommodate fifteen 12 inch flat steel panels, I will need 5 yards of continuous work surface. The only local studio able to offer such generous space to the artist is Thompson, where Mr. Carpenter welcomes me.
I am offered the large room in the old building. Natural light flows from the glass wall on my left. For inspiration, I situate myself facing the large wall display of colors. Every sample of opaque and transparent color currently manufactured by the company to date is facing me numbering one hundred and sixty nine colors. I become a nest- feathering bird, preparing the work area with eagerness and pleasure. Tools, drawings and supplies, everything is placed within reach. Due to Thompson’s abundant supplies there is a sifter for each color. That smallish fact alone contributes to an over-all sentiment of abundance, peace, expectation, and a rising intimation of success.
In preparation for the first firing I lay the pre-coated steel panels side by side on the largest table. A smaller table will be used for holding and sifting the pigments. I mean to lay down the base coats in one continuous action on the supporting panels. The intent is to support the narrative panels with a free-flowing ribbon of color applied as in one gesture from beginning to end of the series, ignoring edges between panels.
I work in silence but within the physical energy of friends. Irmgard Carpenter often peeks in. At the other end of the room, Bill Helwig and Mr. Carpenter fine-tune a formula for a transparent red with great patience, coming and going in and out, consulting sotto once. Tom Ellis checks on my progress, takes pictures and catalogues progress.
The Base Coat
Liturgical commissions do not allow the artist much deviation from the accepted design proposal. Deliberate overfiring, for example, or the blend of lead bearing with lead free enamels for a possibly unusual effect, is not appreciated by the Liturgical Committee. Therefore, I test. Each panel front is coated with LCE 3 liquid white using a stiff, exhausted, 3″ wall paintbrush resulting in a soft suggestion of impasto. A similar amount of LCE 3 is applied for evenness of stress on the back of each panel. After a stringent 24 hour period to allow for thorough drying, sometimes under a heat lamp, each panel is placed on saw toothed trivets which are supported by a firing tray. The panels fire at 1470″ and are allowed to cool on trivets for approximately 10 minutes.
Still in testing mode, the idea of additional dry pigment rubbed into the textured white base coat is tried and rejected on the basis that it attracts undue attention from the real purpose of a supporting panel, which is to support the narrative.
With testing finished, the panels are now laid out on the 10 foot table about ¼ ” apart, each overlapping the table’s edge for easier lifting for transferring to the lab room. An easy rhythm is established by working on three or four panels at once, sifting, drying, firing, cooling. I take satisfaction in using the large reliable fiberfrax lined kiln. Its floor is waist high, perfect for easy placing firing and retrieving panels. The entire set of fifteen panels is fired at this time.
In preparation for the second firing, I set up the sifting table covered with newsprint and white paper towels, topped with the first four tiles placed on stilts. Sifters and the necessary shades are positioned in need-to-use sequence. The first four tiles, for example, required 1808, 1850, 1308, 1315, 1345 in that order. I sift several colors at once, saving the extra only for counterenamel.
I work standing, balanced, and with purpose, relaxing as the work becomes more familiar. As each group of panels is sifted they are moved back to the larger table while I attend to the second group, and then the third and fourth. Whenever a need to verify arises, I place the smaller pastel pre-drawing on the bigger enamel panel to validate any need for color adjustment. No part of this sequence is fired until I can confirm the entire series flows smoothly from beginning to end.
The third firing consists of overlaying appropriate transparents onto the tiles. I sift from a height of2 feet. A swiftly streaked, somewhat cloud-like effect results, with suggestions of left to right motion imp\ring progress, a pilgrimage. A final coating of 200 mesh 2020 flux is now dry-sifted in three directions from 18 inch height, producing a numinous insubstantial surface. This last firing at 1470″ takes four minutes and is checked for pits and, if necessary, dry sifted and re-fired to final gloss. And this, the firing of the supporting panels is concluded.
Time now to attend the smaller and more complex top panels. Each is planned with a precise line drawing and assigned a specific location. To avoid monotony, panel sizes vary.
A folder per panel is established, named, numbered and labeled per panel. A copy of the drawing is glued to front surface of each file. The drawing is transferred by hand in pencil onto as many pieces of pellon as there are color stencils required. A type of synthetic cloth normally used in the clothing trade as a stiffener, pellon is semi transparent when wet and more desirable than paper for stencils. Available by the yard, will not increase or shrink when wet, dries quickly and can be reused numerous times without tearing or altering shape. I find it highly dependable.
I am eager to handle smaller pieces again. I can attend to detail, color and symbol with precision and pleasure. To avoid confusion, I work on only one panel at any time. It is possible to need up to a dozen 5″ x 7″ wet or dry stencils on the table as well as 8 to 10 colors on the table for one 4″ x 8″ piece. Each plaque represents two or three day’s work.
By previous arrangement, Erie Ceramics has been asked to handle the last silk screening and firing of the final brown-black contour lines.
Transparencies for these designs had been sent to Pennsylvania before my Thompson work began so that screens could be prepared concurrently. When the Thompson work is suitably concluded “in the fullness of time,” each panel is numbered and matched with it’s transparency for easy identification at Erie Ceramic. For shipping, the panels are wrapped in paper toweling, brown paper and bubble wrap, the pieces fit tightly in the parcel. Fifteen in a box, snugly packed with additional plastic peanuts are on their way, heavily insured. In Erie, the screens are ready and waiting. During the following two week’s respite, the studio is cleared and cleaned. I returned to my own home studio, anticipating the return of the finished panels, and the presentation phase.
While steel has been chosen relative to warping I obsess over its resulting opacity. The freedom expressed by a great flux or transparent on copper base is denied. While many large panel enamelers will rightly allow panels to hang on their own merit, for myself a solution is to mount each panel on half inch squares of plexiglass with flame-polished edges. The suspended effect achieved through transparency produces a weightless sensation of floating away from the wall. To assure edge alignment of the four elements in each unit, I find a seamstress’ cutting board, marked off in one inch squares, a helpful guide for accurate gluing and taping.
The surface of each piece is roughened using a Dremel tool and carborundum wheel. Paneling adhesive is applied to facing surfaces which are joined, topped with waxed paper and held down with various weights. The curing/drying process is slower than expected, taking two days due to lack of contact between the adhesive and ambient air. The smaller panels, treated in a similar manner, are adhered to their own plexi backing. Finally, each small panel is joined to a larger one, not unlike a four-part sandwich. Careful examination, thorough cleaning and photography finalize this year of work.
Dedication of the new St. Columban’s Church occurs on Sunday. The ceremony includes blessing of the physical building, church furniture and all articles within. As a professional courtesy, I had requested in the original contract that, “AIl printed matter, invitations brochures, and catalogues in which artwork is represented must carry the names of craftsmen and artists involved.” This request was subsequently honored in a catalogue published by the parish of such fine caliber as one would expect of an art exhibition.
The impressive ritual climaxes with dramatic symbolism as our Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk pours a vial of holy oil on the new altar and, rolling up his sleeves, rubs the ointment into the altar’s colossal marble block with great energy.
As the Archbishop blesses my other liturgical works (four processional crosses and a large tabernacle covered with thousands of gold paillons) I receive a personal compliment for my body of work. And it is such rare moments which make one fully thankful for belonging to that creative community of artists known as Enamelers.